Islamic Art Exhibit Looks at an Old Culture in a New Place

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Breaking down cultural barriers has never been easy, but a new exhibit at Michael Berger Gallery on the South Side is attempting to do just that. "Dis[Locating] Culture" focuses on contemporary Islamic art as a conduit for changes in understanding Islamic culture.

The exhibit features the works of nine artists, many of whom are of Middle Eastern heritage but live in this country. It was co- curated by gallery owner Michael Berger and Islamic-art scholar Reem Alalusi of Washington, D.C.

Alalusi says that when asking an average person about Islamic art, a perplexed stare or even smirk may not be uncommon.

"Islam and art don't seem to go into the same sentence, if we believe lots of things we see on the television," she says. "If the person is a bit more knowledgeable, then they may recount the lovely tiles they saw in Morocco or beautiful fretwork in Egypt. However, these artists are, pure and simply, operating under the rubric of the contemporary project. Although they quote various references to other histories or places."

Pointing to the works of Amir Fallah -- "Crystal Mountain" and "On Bended Knee" -- for example, she says, "His works may recall the Persian miniature, (but) they make pointed reference to other subcultures within the American art scene, whilst making incisive political statements."

Fallah, who lives in Los Angeles, is a one-time graffiti artist and the founder and publisher of "beautiful/decay," an independent art, fashion, culture and design journal that focuses on underground and up-and-coming artists. He takes digital images and creates hand- painted "forts," or visual structures, that are built of many small pieces and elements. His work has a strong political and cultural reference to the modern Middle East, such as the piece "On Bended Knee," which is a collage of images of al-Qaida fighters and U.S. military, among other things, framed in an unusual border.

Alalusi says the title, "On Bended Knee" refers to a Boyz II Men song, but the composition retains its broken border as a nod to the miniature. "Ultimately, his works recalls all of those things that might be 'anathema' to the American art establishment: drug paraphernalia, sweet-looking flowers and Middle Eastern elements," she says. "He is an example of what I consider an update on a traditional form: the miniature, with a distinctly political, even anarchical, edge."

Like Fallah's pieces, Detroit-based Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi's "Oil Barrel #7" makes reference to Persian miniatures, yet is full of socioeconomic commentary. A gold-painted oil barrel that sits in the middle of the gallery, it is covered in traditional stylistic symbols that make reference to Persian miniature art. It melds Iran's two greatest exports -- Persian miniatures and oil -- while combining Islamic mythology with modern political themes. For example, look closely, and you will see a bullet hole has gone through the middle of the barrel, making reference to the wars in the modern Middle East. …